Thursday, January 24, 2013
call it a state of things, an economy of conditions
The narrator of George MacDonald's Lilith chases through a mirror after a man who is a raven, and once he is through the mirror he tells the reader that he has trouble explaining to them what he can see because it is an economy of conditions.
He says, "I beg my reader to aid me in the endeavour of making myself intelligible -- if here understanding be indeed possible between us. I was in a world, or call it a state of things, an economy of conditions, an idea of existence, so little correspondent with the ways and means of this world ... that the best choice I can make of word or phrase is but an adumbration of what I would convey."
So there's a trick he can't do, this narrator, and he feels aware that he can't do it, the naming of experience in words on paper, and it might have been possible to solve his problem as Georg Trakl does, by juxtaposing words poetically and strongly and thereby meeting one economy of conditions with this other economy of conditions known as poetry (afterwards he might have felt satisfied that he has risen to the challenge even if he has not won), but the narrator's serious temperament leaves him disabled in this particular area, him, instead, wanting to write prosaically and be the dutiful person that Mikhail Zoschchenko was pretending to be in his Nightingale novella, that decent reporter who lets you know with jokeless fidelity what the character looks like and how he ate.
Now he will ask the reader to aid him in "the endeavour of making myself intelligible," begging this as if it is a special request, as if it is not the exact thing all readers are called upon to do the moment they put their eyes on the pages and agree to read; he encourages them to clasp him extra-tightly, and come very close to the story, and merge with it, because it is set in a strange place and the reader's role needs to be reaffirmed he thinks; they need their spines stiffened and they are being alerted to the existence of a fact they will discover fully much later in the book: that Lilith is a religious allegory.
To disarm the reader MacDonald pretends that the narrator is failing them, and writes as if they should think that the characters are real, and that these real characters should see a thing that is actually there, but the magical landscape on the other side of the mirror thwarts him (though not really: it is playing into his hands, into the plans of the author), this landscape being inhabited by things that correspond only vaguely and irregularly to princesses, leopards, giants, white leeches, loaves of bread, and the other words that the narrator comes up with, yet the reader probably forgets after a short while that the narrator did not really see a leopard, a princess, a white leech, but according to himself ("the best choice I can make of word or phrase is but an adumbration of what I would convey") he saw only some phenomena that had to be suggestively expressed in those terms or else never be talked about or mentioned, and then the book would be unwritable and it would not be in front of you in your hand or anywhere else.
White leeches possibly exist somewhere but not in the place the narrator has visited, not in the mirror-land for whose sake he has written the words "white leech."